This Is Your Middle-Class Relationship With Money

The first time it happened, you couldn’t understand. “Why can’t I have THAT toy, Mommy!!?” you screamed, tears streaming down your face as you threw a fit.

“Because we can’t afford it darling,” she finally said. Trying to shush you, while struggling to give apologetic nods to the shop owners and fellow shoppers. She bungled you into the old Toyota Corolla, and you finally stopped crying. You never saw it, but she was crying too.

In the silence of the drive home, you tried to understand the meaning of the word “afford.” It’s not a word a six-year-old easily understands. Little did you know, you’d struggle with it for the rest of your life.

The Middle Struggle

You didn’t grow up poor. But neither were you rich.

There was always food on the table. Sometimes it was better and sometimes it was worse, but you never went to bed hungry. When there was something to celebrate, there was always KFC.

Your parents never spoke much to you about money. What you picked up: it was something to be saved, but there was never enough of it. You had an allowance: just enough to be comfortable, and just not enough to learn what jealousy means.

All your Asian parents asked was for you to study hard, obey the rules and get good grades. “Follow this path, and you’ll have a good life,” they said. You became a good student — smart enough to get to the first class. You learned to dream big and wanted to go to Cambridge university.

But once more your hopes were dashed. Your family couldn’t afford it — even with the partial scholarship you earned. Somewhere at the back of your mind — while wishing “all the best in UK!” to less-smart classmates from rich families at the airport — you realized there’s something strange, perhaps even unfair about this world.

They told you that intelligence would bring you success — but you started to think maybe money was the real power.

Getting an Education

In university, you learned you were firmly middle class. You could get along with the lucky studs who had cars, and hopped in for a few guys’ nights to the city. But sometimes you hung out with less-privileged friends who could only afford white rice with a single fried egg. You learned to appreciate Nasi Bujang.

Your allowance was barely enough. Especially when you wanted to take a pretty girl out for a date. You couldn’t even afford McDonald’s but decided to bring her to Le Swiss Caffe for your first date anyway. Thankfully she noticed your expression staring at the menu, and mercifully suggested you share. “It’s more romantic that way,” you said, trying to convince yourself you were worthy.

You spent your other nights alternately Googling “Jobs with the highest starting salaries” with “How to save money on dates.” Eating plain bread for dinner became a common and worthy sacrifice.

There was an old promise you pinned your hopes on. That if you could graduate with honors and nail your job interviews, then you’d be set for life. You would make your parents proud, your girlfriend proud, and would even have money to treat your Nasi Bujang friends.

In university you learned there’s the rich, the poor and everyone in between. But you would rather be rich.

Japanese rice with egg and garlic
The imported version

The Trials of Graduate Life

You start work at a prestigious government-linked corporation in downtown Kuala Lumpur. The five-stage interview process was daunting, but with a combination of your good grades and relentless ambition, you got the job.

RM 3,200: your starting salary. It’s hard to save money, especially when all your batchmates keep inviting you for Happy Hour. But you don’t want to feel left out. You don’t wanna feel like a loser. So you try to find balance. You’re determined to not fall into the trap of credit card debt — from your uni days of reading you know better. You limit going out to once a week, telling yourself “It’ll be worth it in the long run.”

When you don’t go, your friends’ Instagram feeds remind you you’re still a loser. “Fuck social media,” you say, as you scroll on to the next Story.

You focus your energy reading personal finance articles telling you to stop drinking overpriced coffee to save RM 2,880 a year. RM 2,880 a year that becomes RM 40,238.33 after 10 years of investing wisely! 40K that could help pay for your wedding! You feel like shit after reading these articles, but tell yourself you deserve it because you’re a piece of shit who likes drinking overpriced coffee.

You avoid taking the highway to save RM 5 in tolls daily. It adds 40 minutes to your commute, but you don’t mind because you can listen to personal finance podcasts while you sit in the jam.

Your old Proton breaks down and you’re hit with an emergency repair cost of RM 1,030.

You’re still broke AF.

Discipline, the Key to Success

You’re determined to change your financial destiny. You meticulously track your spending using Monefy app and update your monthly budget Google spreadsheet on a weekly basis. Times may be difficult, but with discipline, you’re gonna win.

Mr. Money Mustache is your hero. You do the math and start reducing your expenses as much as possible. If you cut your monthly spending by another 10%, and save it — you can retire earlier by 7 years!

Deal-sharing and comparison websites are your favorites. Why buy anything normally, when you can wait for your favorite brand to have a promotion, then use a promo code with your e-wallet? You were gonna spend the money anyway, and better still, top-up your e-wallet with a cashback credit card for 5% free cash!

That’s not even considering the reward points you get on both your e-wallet and credit card. You’re on a roll — you learn all the best credit card and e-wallet combos. You’ve redeemed at least RM 100 just using promo codes this year. You can’t wait for 12.12 to come, thinking of all the money you’re gonna save using your powerful #moneyhacks. You’re Grab Gold.

You fantasize about being debt free. Dave Ramsey is a little extreme, but you like the new FIRE bloggers. Their frugal lifestyles look so good on Instagram. You feel motivated every time you see how people can be happy with just a little.

Your elder brother — who buys expensive coffee all the time — gets a five-figure salary offer to work for some Internet software company that recently raised 42 million USD. To celebrate, he makes a downpayment on a new apartment and buys you a meal at Chili’s.

Everyone Can Be Rich

With your shitty salary, you realize you’re never gonna retire early. You have to grow your income. But how?

The words from last night’s “investment guru” rings in your ears:

“The amount of costs you can reduce in your life is limited, but the amount of money you can make is limitless.”

“Don’t downgrade your lifestyle. Upgrade your income!”

You try driving Grab after work, but your back hurts when you sit for too long. Undaunted, you join a weekly mastermind group, which promises you the opportunity to “brainstorm business ideas with like-minded professionals” and “hold each other accountable for progress.” You’re not really sure what that means, but keep going anyway because you’ve made friends and the food is good.

Your weekends are increasingly packed with self-development seminars and business meetups. After a year of planning (or procrastinating — you’re not really sure), you finally launch your side business — leveraging what you’re good at (calculating numbers), with what the market needs (financial education), and marketing it effectively at low cost (social media).

Your financial education startup gains some traction on Facebook, but makes no money. But that’s okay, failure is a part of business. At least you tried. You consider all the other “passive income” ways to escape the rat race: property rental, stock market trading, FOREX, cryptocurrencies.

You’re a businessman. An entrepreneur. You start thinking about joining an MLM.

Audience raising hands together
“Put your hands up if you’re tired of struggling with money and want freedom”

Making It

You’ve made it. You’re the kind of person who reads CNBC Make It, has nine months expenses in Fixed Deposits, and uses a robo-advisor to manage your investments.

You briefly considered a wealth advisor, but realized AI will take over the world anyway — why rely on humans? Besides, most passively-managed funds beat actively-managed ones anyway. You always do the research — you know the statistics. You’re ready for IR 4.0.

Ironically, instead of the many side hustles you tried, your greatest jump in income came from getting promoted. Then jumping to a competitor who gave you a generous offer. Thank God you didn’t quit your job to MLM full time. There’s wisdom in experience and perseverance — you’ve actually become pretty good at your day job and enjoy it.

You outsource as many things as possible. Why do housework when you can pay for convenience? You need the energy for the greater things you’re gonna achieve in life. You calculate your hourly rate. Your salary is RM 10,500 a month, which means RM 59.66 per hour. You pay only RM 40 per hour for an Indonesian helper, saving RM 19.66 every hour. The math doesn’t lie — you’re so smart with your money.

You’re the kind of successful person who has money but no time. Maybe you should work less, but then would you still perform so well at work?

The Circle of Life

You start a family and your parents rejoice.

Fear grips you when you realize how much children cost. Formula, diapers, education. Education. “Fuck, that’s expensive!” There’s no way you can afford an international school, but national school standards are so bad you can’t imagine giving your baby anything less than the best.

All your detailed calculations about early retirement go down the drain. With a family, you’ll have to work a typical career. You’ll be lucky if you get to retire by 60. From your revised spreadsheet, your wife will have to go back to work too. Then again, who looks after the kids? If you’re always working, how do you raise a family? Maybe you really do need that passive income…

So many questions — it’s gonna be a long, difficult road ahead. But for your baby, you’d be willing to do anything. Things are different now; love changes everything.

You realize you’ll probably continue to struggle with money for the rest of your life. But when you have something worth struggling for, that’s okay.

– – –

Pics from Pexels:, Shelagh Murphy & Pixabay: pumishig.

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  • I am in my early 20s and graduating soon. This article is a clear explanation on how life works and what reality is for most people. Even for myself, i do not come from rich family or very poor family but i am truly grateful for everything that I have. To those people who are struggling to find a new job after graduating or after being laid off, and those who are working very hard to secure stable income for their families, i hope that no matter what kind of hardship that you are currently facing, let us hope that everything is going to be fine.

    • Thanks for this kinda message Sya,

      Though times are difficult, as long as people stick together and help each other, I know we’ll be eventually okay. Take care and stay strong!

  • Down to earth writing. From another perspective, it does not have to be a circle in life. We are creating our own struggle when we are not financially ready to have a kid. Readiness refers to the ability to provide the best. All in all, the main question lie on why do we need to have kid in the first place especially if we were not ready?

    • Thanks for the thoughts. Some would argue, is anyone truly ready to have a kid? Also, due to educational/cultural differences — many have kids because it’s the “normal” thing to do.

  • Seriously one of my all time favourite article which we can relate in our life. Keep it up bro.

  • A very good read, Aaron, this is an article close to heart. I come from a middle class family and I could relate to it in a lot of ways.

  • Thanks for the great article (again!)

    It is like reading biography of my life (so far), I hope the rest of it won’t become self-fulfilling prophecy. And I love how you end your article “But when you have something worth struggling for, that’s okay”. It resonates so much!

  • I too can relate with all that’s happened to me in the past, as illustrated here. What I fear most is that the rest of the article becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for my years to come 😝

  • Your article reminded me of myself, in my younger days and also now while I am trying to get business income from various sources and through advertising in social media. Need to get out of this circle of life and onto to the top tier fast.

  • I remember the day I see that Transformer toy in Toys’r’us in Subang Parade when it was still a sprawling warehouse. My mom wouldn’t buy me the toy, instead saying I need to save my Chinese new year packet if I wanted to have it. So I saved. I fantasize about having the toy in my hands. The day came, I did not get the toy. I realised I had more fun fantasizing than actually getting the toy. I had learned delayed gratification and the fickleness of human emotion all at one go.

    I appreciate the honesty about having AIs taking over the world. I have many clients who believe it as well. I guess as a person with engineering and IT background, I can appreciate the many times people think I can solve any problem when all I did was to look at the reality, reverse-engineer using science and fix the issues. The main problem with that belief is that people start to think it is a tech or policy problem. No. The main problem is people’s emotions. Loss aversion, greed, recency bias, availability bias, etc. etc. That is why people are still confused about what is the optimal investment in the market. And that is also why people still continue to have difficult relationship with money.

  • It seems like you’re writing about my life (but a male version one). Like you, the greatest jump in income I had was jumping to a competitor. Not the investments or MLM. Then, kids expenses made me realize I have to work as living on a single salary would mean cutting out sooooo much

  • “…uses a robo-advisor to manage your investments…”
    “…math doesn’t lie…”

    Damn, it’s like you’re me talking to myself right now. Weirdly enough I’m all over the place in this post. A graduate, but not exactly in a super prestigious company. Using robo-advisors for investments, but don’t exactly have all the sufficient savings.

    But really, Aaron, for a 22-year-old, where can I improve? I’ve read your posts, and it resonates a lot with my own views, but I’m still more or less loss. Some advice would really help from a person who’s been through it (I mean, I guess you are pretty much older than me, that’s a fact).

    • I think the most responsible thing I can tell a 22-year old is: if you’re asking all this difficult existential questions, challenging yourself, trying to improve (and getting kinda down/struggling with the process), it’s that you’re already on the right path. Just don’t be too hard on yourself. With time and experience you’ll be fine. I’m very confident of that.

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